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VOL. XXXII JULY, 1922 No. 



THE MONIST 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 

NO INSISTENCE has been more characteristic of 
modern philosophy than that which lays it down that 
philosophy has to do with experience and its actualities. 
Possibilities have been too often treated as airy nothings, 
mere ideas or mental terms, and nothing more. That phil- 
osophy is the science of the possible is a suggestion far 
from likely to be taken up even if it were found feasible 
or desirable, so insistent are the demands of the actual 
world for explanation. If we should find the actual to be 
the source of all possibility, that would certainly not ren- 
der the suggestion, with its isolation of the possible, a more 
warrantable enterprise. But, in any case, the philosophy 
of possibility seems to me worthy of more attention than 
it has received. In spite of pure empiricism, possibility has 
not failed to catch some attention, all through the history 
of philosophy from the Greeks onward, however fugitive 
and sporadic that attention may have been. And so far 
from being a mere figment of the imagination, possibility 
exists both as idea and as fact ; a possibility contains some 
actual idea; it is indeed as real, objectively, as actuality 
itself. But yet the possible implies in every case, that the 
idea has fallen short of reality. For every possibility an 
ens essentiae may be claimed, though not, of course, an 
ens existentiae. Every possibility has a real foundation 
in some nature or being, proximate or remote. That there 
is some reality in possibilities must be thus early kept in 



322 THE MONIST. 

mind. There are two forms of existence, the actual and 
the possible. What exists as actuality is, from the sub- 
ject's point of view, content of a presentation, or reducible 
to such. Actual experience has a large margin of possible 
experience, and this extension of the actual cannot be left 
out of sight. There is not one of the States of America 
which does not exist for me actually, and not as mere pos- 
sibility, and yet any one of these is only possible experience 
for me until I set foot upon it, and it becomes for me actual 
in presentative experience. What exists as possibility, on 
the other hand, is, from the subject's point of view, con- 
tent of a conception. Such conceived content exists only 
as possibility, not actuality. Possibility has been declared 
to be just the ideal we have of anything. Possible exist- 
ence may be of a kind, as we have just seen, that it can 
become real content of what is as yet only possible experi- 
ence. But that is not the sense of possibility with which 
we are at this point concerned. We are concerned with 
it only in the sense in which the existent is present to con- 
sciousness purely as possible. The purely possible, of 
course, precludes existence. Possible being is not yet exist- 
ent, but is taken as capable of coming into being, or exist- 
ing. The idea of possibility exists antecedently to all cre- 
ated being. All knowing is a knowing of what is at least 
possible existence. All really possible objects are conceiv- 
able : all real possibilities are rational, I mean as objects of 
thought: the impossible is self -contradictory or irrational. 
The possible, in the logical sense, is what is free from con- 
tradiction; but all possibility is possibility of something, 
however indeterminate. The philosophy of possibility 
cannot evade the question of the origin of possibilities. Can 
we trace possibility simply to the human mind? Do possi- 
bilities not exist before the human mind comes into being ? 
Will the possibilities not exist after the human mind has 
ceased to exist? Can we even ascribe the possibilities to 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 323 

the universe? If the universe were done away, would 
possibilities not remain in undiminished form? For, are 
the possible universes not infinite? And, is not possibility 
necessary and eternal? These are among the questions 
that may be asked. The philosophy of possibility can 
hardly be satisfied to accept possibilities as accounting for 
themselves. We are compelled to think of the ideas of pos- 
sibility as existing in some mind or spirit, and ultimately, 
in a Sovereign Mind or Spirit, wherein they gain eternal 
basis and fixity. But, even if such an ultimate origin be 
deemed unnecessary, it still holds that necessary ideas of 
possibility, like other necessary truths, contain "the deter- 
mining plan and the regulative principle of existent things 
themselves." But if the ideas or principles exist before 
contingent things in this* manner, then must they be 
grounded in some necessarily existing substance. Rosmini, 
who was severely critical of Kant's treatment of the cate- 
gories, did possibility the honor to regard it as the only 
one, out of Kant's twelve forms, which really is an original 
and essential form of the human intellect. Hoffding, less 
correctly, in my judgment, would educe all the categories 
to the two concepts, quantity and cause. Rosmini's posi- 
tion would perhaps be a primary consideration in making 
philosophy a science of the possible, were such a philoso- 
phy feasible. Our knowledge, so far at least as it consists 
of thought, should then only be concerned with possibili- 
ties. Possibility would be the fundamental, all-embracing 
category. We cannot, however, carry out this notion of 
confining all that is thought only to the possible, for we 
must know the real, and seek objective being or existence. 
Otherwise there would be a false limitation of thought. 
Besides, being allows itself to be brought under concepts, 
and thereby shows itself to be logically determined. But 
this is not all that Rosmini did. Aristotle had confused 
the purely logical issue, so far as it was concerned, by plac- 



324 THE MONIST. 

ing possibility and necessity in things, in conformity with 
his insistences on potentiality and actuality. But we shall 
consider Aristotle later. The transition from the possible 
to the actual was, for him, effected through motion. Kant 
did not improve matters when he made possibility and 
necessity mere subjective conditions of the thinking sub- 
ject. What Rosmini did was to ground both possibility and 
necessity in the nature of being. Being so meant has no 
material associations, is only indeterminate form. But 
being, of course, is object, not subject. What I have 
already said of possibilities, from the subject's point of 
view, holds of them as known in their groundedness in 
being. But that is not to say that a merely possible essence 
has no ontological or objective basis independently of our 
conception of it. Possibility and necessity I have coupled 
together, since,' possibility being analyzed, what is really 
possible is found to be necessarily so. And it may be re- 
marked that it is with necessary truths that science, in the 
strict sense, has to do — with essences rather than exis- 
tences. Mere scientific facts are sterile until they become 
fecundated by ideal or necessary truths. 

When we consider the concept of mere possibility, we 
find that, in its positive aspect of capability of existence, 
it has a certain ontological basis and a certain objective 
reality, that is, as an objective concept. For what is meant 
by the really possible? Is it not some ideally constitute- 1 
being or entity, conceived as capable of coming into being 
or existence in the world? But that means that it is 
already real as an objective concept. And this means that 
possible essence is not any fanciful and arbitrary crea- 
tion which one chooses to conceive. Possible existence 
lends itself to no such freaks of the mind. Possible being, 
as a concept, needs some sort of objective reality to justify 
it. Possible existence is not to be thought of save as cap- 
able of being produced in the order of things existing; for 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 325 

that alone is meant by its real possibility. Thus an acorn 
may, certain ideal conditions being made actual, be an oak, 
but it cannot possibly be an elm. In the same way the child 
may possibly be the man, but not the kangaroo. Possible 
essence does not require to be precontinued in the entity 
which is the real basis of possibility, in any formal and 
actual manner: it is enough that it virtually or ideally so 
pre-exists. Possible things are such that they may yet 
exist de facto, and do presently exist virtually in their 
causes. What has been said in this paragraph appertains 
to the region of metaphysical possibility, rather than that 
of logical possibility, although the mental process of con- 
ceiving must, of course, be of a logical or consistent char- 
acter. But indeed this is not all ; for, metaphysical as may 
be the entity which is the real basis of possibility, the pos- 
sible essence must obviously be logically pre-contained in 
that existence which is the only basis of its reality. 

The Scholastic philosophers have been by no means 
alone in realizing the importance of the philosophy of pos- 
sibility, but they have been paramount in the attention they 
have given to it, and have made us their doctors for all 
time. One of the distinctions whose importance they have 
realized is that between intrinsic possibility and extrinsic 
possibility. In intrinsic possibility, the conception of a be- 
ing or object, in its capacity for existence, is such as to 
involve no inner contradiction, no inner repugnance of 
being or character. Such intrinsic possibility is, in its in- 
herent character, logical; yet must it find foundation in 
some reality. 

A very broad example of intrinsic impossibility may be 
found in Lotze's criticism of Kant's scheme of Categories 
when, in the first volume of his "Metaphysics," he says that 
"that kind of theoretical security for an unconditional com- 
pleteness, which Kant was in quest of, is something intrin- 
sically impossible." But simpler examples, such as a round 



326 THE MONIST. 

square, lie ready to hand. The absolute character of inner 
or intrinsic possibility is noteworthy, compared with the 
relative character of outer or extrinsic possibility. But the 
two forms together constitute the full concept of possibil- 
ity. And the inner possibility is the presupposition of the 
outer possibility. Such inner possibility is in character 
metaphysical. What is intrinsically impossible is also ex- 
trinsically impossible, but what is, in a given case, extrin- 
sically impossible, is not therefore intrinsically impossible. 
Intrinsic possibility, in briefest terms, then, means mere 
non-absurdity. 

Extrinsic possibility denotes the capacity for existence 
of a being or object due to the fact that something else has 
power to actualize it, as intrinsically possible. More 
briefly, extrinsic possibility means merely, being causable. 
Within the sphere of created things are many intrinsically 
possible things which are yet impossible, extrinsically. Ex- 
trinsic possibility may be physical, or it may be moral. 
Ultimate possibilities belong to the order of the necessary 
and immutable. Aristotle held, in his "Metaphysics," that 
the actual is anterior to the possible, alike in respect of 
being and of knowledge. 

Aristotle contended that the passage from possibility 
to actuality takes place in certain fixed and unchanging 
ways, whereby the true nature of the real is made manifest. 
The potential is not to be confounded with mere possibility, 
as if anything whatsoever were to be reckoned possible. 
The possibility of the actual is for him the only possibility. 
What cannot be actualized is impossible. Determinate pos- 
sibility, not possibility of the abstract and unlimited sort, 
is Aristotle's insistence. That is to say, the possible means 
possibility of realization in certain and definite ways. The 
impossible means incompatibility with the actual. In these 
positions the Scholastic philosophers have largely followed 
him. They have held that actual being, not possible, is the 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 327 

first of all being. Their position has been that we cannot 
know possibility or things possible, without the concept of 
actuality or of things actual. Thus the concept of the pos- 
sible presupposes the concept of the actual. The possible, 
is already, in part, the real. It has had to be admitted, of 
course, that in the case of secondary created existences or 
things, the idea of their possibility preceded their actual 
being. But, it is said, the contention as to the possible is 
not made in the sense of comparing it with the real in the 
same object. What is meant is, that a possible thing does 
not, in becoming real, give itself reality, its reality not 
being attained save through some other being, actual or 
existing. 

Hegel puts the matter rightly when he says that "pos- 
sibility should come second" — after actuality; for only "in 
abstract thought" does the possibility conception come first. 

From the Scholastic philosophers I pass to that admit- 
tedly profound but neglected thinker, C. H. Weisse, who 
went to the root of the philosophy of possibility by raising 
— but not for the first time — the question of the possibility 
of God. The concept of God was for Weisse no presup- 
positionless affair. The original possibility of God includes 
for him every other possibility, and is the sole content of 
thought-necessity. This thought of the original possibil- 
ity of God is the basal thought of his system, in which the 
concept of the possible may be said to count for more than 
the concept of being. But he held that no abstract neces- 
sity of reason can give us more than empty forms of pos- 
sibility. His position, then, is that there is only one truth 
which is originally necessary to thought, namely, that only 
God is possible, and that in His possibility is contained the 
possibility of all things. In his view, the becoming real 
of this original possibility or thought-necessity of God 
means a real thinking absolute Subject. Now, interesting 
as these positions of Weisse are, they tempt one to some 



328 THE MONIST. 

critical reflections. The idea of any being implies, of 
course, the possibility of that being. But can we apply 
that to the case of God? Is not such mere possibility ex- 
cluded by the fact that the true idea of God is that of the 
necessary being or existence? If He is necessarily the 
primal and perfect actuality, raised above all conditions of 
potentiality, then He is not possible in the sense that was 
spoken of. Kant, it should be noted, had early taken up 
the ground that God's existence, as a necessary Being, was 
antecedent to the possibility of His existence — the possi- 
bility, in his view, depending on His existence. What 
Kant really meant was, that possibility logically presup- 
poses actual existence as its base or foundation, but his 
mode of putting the matter was not very happy. But Kant 
put the matter much better when, in his Critique of Judg- 
ment, he spoke of "the irrepressible tendency of reason 
to suppose some unconditionally necessary existence, or 
original ground, in which the distinction of possible and 
actual no longer holds good." The old rule or saying, "to 
be possible comes before to be" ("prius est posse esse quam 
esse"), may, it seems to me, do very well for things finite, 
but it can have no applicability to One who is Ens a se — 
Being in and of itself. As such, God is not possibility at 
all, but the prime metaphysical necessity. Leibniz differs 
from Weisse when, in dealing with the Anselmic proof, 
he maintained that if such a Being as God be possible, He 
exists. For he held that those who would deny this prop- 
osition would deny the possibility of Being in and of itself. 
But if that were so, he says, then all things through another 
would be impossible, and nothing could exist. That would 
imply that the necessary Being called God does exist, since 
we find possible beings in actual existence, but it does not 
yield an a priori argument. But the question of the pos- 
sible had occupied the mind of Descartes, long before Leib- 
niz, and it is interesting in the present connection to recall 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 329 

the statement of Descartes, — "But we must make a distinc- 
tion between possible and necessary existence, and observe 
that possible existence is included in the notion or idea of 
all things of which we conceive clearly or distinctly, but 
that necessary existence is included in the idea of God 
alone." 

It would be a serious mistake to suppose that Descartes 
is here making a new distinction. The possible, the neces- 
sary, and the impossible, were suggestively dealt with, very 
much earlier, by that powerful logician Wyclif, whom I 
have found more interesting in his "Logica" in this respect, 
than his great opponent, Occam, in his logical "Summa." 
Wyclif gives the first place to God's existence as absolutely 
necessary, but speaks of a secondarily necessary as self- 
necessary, geometrical theorems, for example. "Neces- 
sary" means, for Wyclif, "impossible not to be" : "Impos- 
sible" means "necessary not to be." The meaning of im- 
possibility, for him, answer to those of necessity. Des- 
cartes, then, holds that we cannot conceive of God save as 
existing, and, in his fifth "Meditation," he maintains that, 
as the idea of a triangle involves its having three angles 
equal to two right angles, so the idea of God carries with 
i' His existence. It is possible to conceive a mountain or 
a valley without either of them existing, he says, but it 
is not possible to conceive any other Being than God to 
whose essence belongs existence. These are aspects of 
Descartes' teaching whose tenableness I am not now con- 
cerned to discuss ; what I am concerned with is, that in the 
fore-shadowed idea of necessary Being there is already 
much that would give pause to Weisse's line of argument 
as to the possibility of God. The only possibility of God 
that would be left for consideration would be, whether 
the notion itself of God as the sole necessary Being was one 
that was intrinsically repugnant, self-contradictory, or im- 
possible, in the character of its Being. If the possibilities 



330 THE MONIST. 

of all things derive from God, as the sole necessary Being, 
then clearly He Himself cannot be subject to the law of 
possibility. Aquinas said, "Deus est actualitas totius pos- 
sibilitatis." But I do not dwell on these aspects, though it 
did not seem possible wholly to avoid their discussion, be- 
cause it is the law of general possibility, with which this 
paper is mainly concerned. 

The philosophy of possibility has to contend against 
many injustices. Pure empiricists will have none of it as 
a theory, from Hume onwards, although Hume did not 
deny the possibility of knowledge. The actual is their limit 
of possibility, its only measure. Bain and Mill are exam- 
ples. The universe is for such empiricism just what it is, 
a closed system, impervious to influence from without. 
Said Lewes, "nothing really exists till it exists, and noth- 
ing exists possibly, for possibility is only the uncertainty 
of our ignorance." Mill talked of "possibilities of sensa- 
tion, although abstracting all substance and causality in 
such a manner as to leave said "possibilities" deprived of 
the conditions of possibility. But the philosophy of pos- 
sibility is not furthered by certain empiricists telling us 
that the universe might just as well have been one in which 
2 and 2 would have made 5, or the square would have had 
the form of the ellipse. It is concerned only with possibili- 
ties that are real and rational. But what do we get from 
<n idealist like Bradley? When dealing with the princi- 
ples of logic, he says that "reality in itself is neither neces- 
sary, nor possible, nor impossible." For these predicates, 
be holds, exist only in our reflection. And if our knowl- 
edge and reflection were great enough to take in all the 
facts, "nothing would ever appear possible. The real 
would seem necessary, the unreal would seem impos- 
sible." But, as we are not such impossible beings as his 
supposition demands, the more relevant task is to discuss 
possibility as it exists for us. We are only such beings that 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 33 1 

we have to accept the law of uniformity of nature, although 
no final logical reason is possible to us for the huge assump- 
tion that nature is uniform. Scientific inquiry resolves it- 
self, it would seem, into the study of possibilities. A sci- 
entific hypothesis is but one conception among alternative 
possibilities. Kepler is said to have made nineteen false 
hypotheses regarding the form of the planetary orbits, and 
the theory in which he finally rested, that these orbits are 
ellipses, was but a possibility or an hypothesis until veri- 
fied by facts. Uranus first became a possibility to Her- 
schel, and Neptune to Leverrier through gravitation laws, 
and then they became facts or discoveries. The possible 
is futurist in character, although there is a sense, of course, 
in which the Actual may be said to be, before all things 
possible. But that is a sense with which we are not here 
concerned, and besides, the question of possibility cannot 
be raised as to present or actual fact, but should be kept as 
a question of the future. Possible relations the scientific 
inquirer seeks to establish, as when, for example, Faraday 
attempted to discover a possible relation between gravity 
and electricity. Another example of possibility that had 
to be considered was, the possibility of expressing the 
conditions of motion by means of differential equations, 
while another instance has been the discussion, with ref- 
erence to modern electrical theories, of the possibility of 
ultimate mechanical explanations. In the biological 
sphere, beyond the chromidial unit lay, as an unforeseen 
possibility, the cell, awaiting discovery. . But why enter 
on examples when the whole progress of science has been 
strewn with theories of possibilities which have in time 
been replaced by other and more perfect theories? The 
field of physical possibility seems of boundless scope, and 
this is the very inspiration of science. But there are other 
fields of possibility, such as psychic possibilities, moral pos- 
sibilities, logical possibilities, metaphysical possibilities, 



332 THE MONIST. 

epistemological possibilities, and so forth. They are not less 
real after their kind than the physical possibilities. Of the 
possibilities in every sphere, one may say that they must 
at least be possible to thought. Anything, the concept of 
which is self-contradictory, is itself impossible. Kant does 
not treat the categories, among them that of possibility, 
with the clearness and exactitude that might be wished, 
accepting them, as he does, in a merely empiric way. He 
acknowledges a pure use of the categories to be possible, 
that is, not self-contradictory, but says that such a use has 
no kind of objective validity. The categories contain mere 
possibilities and depend on experience for their validity 
and confirmation. And experience depends on the cate- 
gories for its possibility. Thought is, however, no guar- 
antee of reality. Kant failed to appreciate the dynamic 
aspect of the world, and viewed each category too much 
as separate and complete in itself. There was lack, there- 
fore, of developmental view of the whole. In an abstract 
sense, what is thinkable, is possible. This would appear 
to be the use of the possibility category most accordant 
with Kant's system. But it is present only in the sense 
that anything is possible which is conform to the formal 
condition of experience. His first postulate of empirical 
thought is, in his own words, that "that which harmonizes 
with the formal conditions of experience is possible." Kant 
recognizes possibility of a real or empirical character, 
which is not without some kind of empirical basis to rest 
upon. It has been objected that this form of possibility 
is vague and indeterminate, but that can hardly have much 
weight with us after all that has been advanced in the fore- 
going pages. A potency contained in its cause, e. g., is 
surely a fairly determinate possibility. I think there is 
something in Cohen's position, that the possible is not the 
real only in concept; that possibility is a synthetic deter- 
mination of relation ; and that it cannot be drawn off from 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 333 

reality within the context of experience. 1 How different 
it may be noted, is the impossible, which remains mere 
thought — thought vanquished by the real; for in the im- 
possible, thought and reality are mutually opposed. It is 
just the value of the categories that they render synthetic 
a priori judgments possible, and so advance our knowl- 
edge of reality. In such judgments, the categories are 
the a priori elements, conferring on them necessity and 
universality, and so rendering them scientific. Otherwise, 
objects might be given to us in experience, but they would 
not be known. 

I have been mainly concerned to show the reality of 
(he possible. If we took it as the merely conceivable, out 
of all relation to everything else, we should have a merely 
abstract and empty possibility. But as real possibility, pos- 
sibility or capacity concretely conceived, it is a highly im- 
portant category. For this is dynamic possibility, force 
that is pressing towards expression. For possibility is but 
a moment in the movement towards existence. Existence 
is complementum possibilitatis, so, at least, Leibniz and 
Wolff styled it. Wolff was, of course, right enough in pre- 
supposing that not everything thought possible is also 
real. And perhaps his position, that the existence of a 
thing is a completion of its possibility may, in the view of 
some, be allowed to stand, in the case of what we have 
called real possibilities. But it will not stand for possi- 
bility in general — not for those abstract possibilities 
already discussed. For he was mistaken in supposing that 
everything, which happened to be essentially free of con- 
tradiction, has the capability of existing. We cannot as- 
sume that, in the case of something abstractly possible, 
but not actual, its non-existence merely means lack of 
existence. Exception may be taken to Wolff's position that 
existence is completion of possibility, even in the case of 

» H. Cohen, "Kant's Theorie der Erfahrung," p. 234. 



334 THE MONIST. 

real possibilities, for if possibility involves that a thing is 
already fully determined, it may be contended that it is 
not susceptible of further determination. What I have 
already said of Aristotle's positions should be remembered 
here, but attention must be fixed on what the concept of 
real possibility involves, such possibility being always de- 
terminate. Real possibility belongs to something that real- 
izes itself. But there are differences in the possible here. 
There is possibility as we see it where some effectuating 
cause is at work. And there is possibility where, on a tele- 
ological view, our own self-conscious purpose is a deter- 
minative influence at work for the realization of an end. 
There may be several possible ways of reaching this end. 
An egg in virtue of its evolutive property produces a bird, 
but the egg remains for itself an egg. It is thought which 
sees in it the possibility which is eventually realized. The 
possibility of development shows potency thus becoming 
real. There is this peculiarity, then, in possibility, that 
the real or existent conditions are complemented by the 
thought or ideal conditions. This supplementary func- 
tioning by thought is very important in the study of pos- 
sibility. For one may be very skeptical indeed as to pos- 
sibility being given us through empirical perception ; it is 
thought or reflection upon the experience which finds for 
us the possible, whether present or future. We cannot be 
content with the given in perception; the Spirit by means 
of thought frees itself from the impression. We only reach 
the concept of real possibility as we think of a continuity, 
which underlies the changing experience. Logical con- 
cepts may stretch out beyond experience, but it is other- 
wise when we deal with real possibility. For this is just 
the potency of the real, and possibility may here be lim- 
ited by dependence on circumstances. The potentiality is 
merely "an antedated, presupposed, and hypothetical actu- 
ality." I have shown real possibility to have a certain 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 335 

dependence on something empirically given, an actual basis 
in which part of the possibility-conditions is already real- 
ized, and yet it is the very triumph of the category of pos- 
sibility that it frees us from the dominion of the empiri- 
cally given. If I think of the world itself as one of un- 
realized possibilities, set in a universe of many other 
worlds, also of unrealized possibilities, I am away beyond 
all experience, I am emancipated from the thraldom of 
the empirically given. Thus does the category of possi- 
bility, with its illimitable horizon, raise me above empirical 
reality. But it is the insistence of Kant that the use of 
the categories does not extend beyond the limit of the 
objects of experience. But the possible is still the think- 
able, and the thinkable blends with the intuitional in the 
formulation of possibilities. Reason plays important part 
in this realm of posited possibilities, whose realization it 
demands. Science has continually to reckon with possi- 
bilities which it has not yet found in sensible reality. In 
the more abstract domain of mathematics, there is a whole 
world of possibilities, with chains of necessary connection. 
There are necessary possibilities, it must even be said, con- 
nected with reason's ideal of reality, and when the idea of 
the absolute, a possible and necessary idea, has been 
thought, the limit of the category of possibility has been 
reached. Away from the sphere of the necessitated, in 
the region of personal spirit, there is the greatly neglected 
notion of spontaneity, which yields real possibilities. The 
possibility of communion with others, in matters of knowl- 
edge, belongs to the same personal sphere. 

It will be evident that a great deal has been said to pre- 
pare the way for the statement that there are degrees of 
possibility. The possible does not always carry one and 
the same meaning, a fact which furthers this result. The 
whole philosophy of probability, with which we are not 
here concerned, rests upon the power to differentiate be- 



33^ THE MONIST. 

tween different degrees of possibilities. Probability is not 
only the guide of life ; it is the guide of science also. From 
fantastic and merely conceivable possibilities, which con- 
stitute the lowest degree of possibility, we pass up to high 
degrees of real possibility. That is to say, we pass from 
the barely possible up to the highly probable. And we have 
already noticed such differences in kind as logical possi- 
bilities and ontological (or objective) possibilities. When 
it is a question of propositional truths, the possibilities 
are matters of logical grounds and consequences, not of 
objective conditions and results. And anything is possi- 
ble, logically, that is conceivable, that is, so far as it is 
not self-contradictory. But this, of course, carries no 
reality coresponding to it. Possibility is another matter 
when connected with empirical reality. There the possible, 
whose causes and conditions exist or will come into exist- 
ence, must be consonant with, or conform to, the laws of 
Nature. But when, in respect of degrees of possibility, 
actuality is pronounced to be the maximum of possibility, 
I doubt whether we should so speak, for in actuality, as it 
appears to me, possibility is no longer present, but has been 
already sublated, or, if you prefer, sublimated. We saw 
that hypotheses were alternative possibilities, not all of 
which are, in like degree, possibly true. The vast scope 
for degrees of objective possibility, in the outer world, 
needs no emphasis. Things may be possible, too, without 
being known to be so. There is not only our subjective 
recognition of outer possibilities, but there are the sub- 
jective possibilities connected with our own purposes and 
endeavors, in which also there are degrees of possibility 
as to their realization. 

The great value of the category of possibility, particu- 
larly for science, is, I think, its lesson of the need for the 
open mind in respect of the future. But, of course, this 
applies also to the philosophical questions, and theories, 



THE PHILOSOPHY OF POSSIBILITY 337 

which arise out of scientific problems or determinations. 
Many a scientific hypothesis, and many a philosophical 
theory, have had to succumb to the tests of ever-advancing 
thought. The same possibility awaits many of those cur- 
rent today. Evolution by means of natural selection ; the 
turning of thought from mechanical to vitalistic tenden- 
cies; the postulation of energy as a quantity constant in 
amount; the theory of heat; the theory of relativity; the 
theory, have had to succumb to the tests of ever-advancing 
tist theory; the theory of value; these, and many more, 
have possibilities that lie hidden in the future, favorable 
or otherwise. In the sciences of Nature, possibility amount- 
ing to probability is all that we have. But a short time 
ago, it did not seem possible that any chemical element 
could change; but radium burst the bonds of seeming im- 
possibility. On the philosophical side, there is the ques- 
tion of open or closed systems. A closed system is one 
which contains no real possibilities. Every event is to it 
either actual or necessary. The actual, too, is supposed 
necessary, and there is nothing possible in such a system 
but the necessary. New potentialities, of course, there 
may be, but all is predetermined and fatally certain. The 
system being closed, there is no purpose: it is non-teleo- 
logical. There are systems, however, like that of Leibniz, 
for example, with its pre-established harmony, which, 
though closed, are not non-teleological, although there is 
still too much fixedness for the freedom of the moral life. 
The Hegelian system seeks to mediate between the idea 
of a finished universe and the freedom of the moral life, 
but it must, strictly regarded, be taken as, in reality, a 
closed system. The Hegelian "Logic" expressly says that 
there must be no talk of possibility or of the possible. We 
must bring out, says Hegel, the necessity hidden behind 
every semblance of contingency. In such a system the pos- 
sibilities are merely apparent, not real and genuine. 



33§ THE MONIST. 

Against all this, one must stand for an open system — a 
growing or unfinished universe, with room for the free, 
creative possibilities of the good will. There must be no 
limit set to the possible increase of ethical and other higher 
values. 

James Lindsay. 
Irvine, Scotland.